“There are two types of composers,” Esa-Pekka Salonen began, “those in the development style”, who morph through early, middle, and late periods like Beethoven, “and then the other side where every composition is an egg”, in which the composition process doesn’t quite change, but “if you’re in the laying eggs business, that’s what you do.” Salonen, currently the New York Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence, has an almost inhuman understanding of the functioning of a composer’s brain and conveys it in a style that is both casual and transient. As part of the New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT new music series at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, Salonen drew connections among  Olivier Messiaen, two of his students (Pierre BoulezGeorge Benjamin) and one outlier (Oliver Knussen) in an attempt to diffuse how one “egg-layer” instructed and inspired future “egg-layers” of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Benjamin Suomela
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela
Messiaen’s Fantaisie for violin and piano (1933) served as the evening’s model the composer’s basic stylistic traits, excluding birdsong and liturgy, that would be transferred to or outrightly snubbed by his students. Fantaisie, shaped within Messiaen’s coveted “modes of limited transposition”, is in the French style of, as Salonen puts it, “doing one thing at a time”. Akin to his predecessors, Messiaen’s early work rejected the German idea of development and instead presented thematic material in a neatly arranged map. Fantaisie is formed almost Classically, with a pompous introduction, rising conflict, and a perfect major cadence to tie it up. The entire piece was performed ecstatically by Violinist Yulia Ziskel and pianist Steven Beck who relished in its Dukas-ian exhilaration.

While his students did not copy his harmonic and melodic structures, they possessed a serious inclination toward organization and spontaneity. Salonen was quick to point out that Boulez publicly rejected Messiaen’s compositions, smugly remarking on his dislike for their use of “organ and birds” as well as religious subtexts. Boulez’s Anthèmes I for solo violin (1991-92) was premiered the year of Messiaen’s death, and signaled Boulez’s return to the use of themes, which he fundamentally rejected throughout his career as a composer. Violinist Anna Rabinova powered through the piece’s seven sections with bravura and vigilance, contrasting each “verse” with the brief harmonic glissandi and emphasizing the presence of the two co-existing sonic worlds. Rabinova wilfully tamed each rhythm-cell (theme) and phrased each gestures with a sense of forward direction, even as the work desired to flee in every possible direction.

Often cited as Messiaen’s favorite pupil, George Benjamin revered his teacher, and Salonen recalled Benjamin’s first years with the “chord collector”. The young composer would present new chords each week to his teacher who was never completely satisfied. Viola, viola for two violas (1996-97), performed by Katherine Greene and Peter Kenote, revels in the idea of two lines drifting farther apart as they approach an end. Greene noted that the composer intended the music stands to be aligned in a V-shape to give the idea visual significance as well. Viola, viola’s monochromatic texture unravels through the composer’s canonic writing, and this demonstrates how, as Salonen suggested, Messiaen’s students built their thoughts by perpetually and organically moving forward, and therefore making the limit difficult to anticipate.

Oliver Knussen was not a student of Messiaen, but his writing moves with the same sense of cohesion and progressive motion. Autumnal for violin and piano was in the process of being written when Benjamin Britten died in 1976. Salonen quipped that Britain has been searching for the next Benjamin Britten since the 1970s, but there can be only one at a time; around this time, it was Knussen. The Ziskel-Beck duo returned to perform the mournful piece, which contains hints of grief-stricken introspection, evocative of Berg and Webern. The second movement, Serenade, features a guitar-like tremolo in the violin part that embellishes the gloom.

Messiaen’s Le Merle noir (The Blackbird) for flute and piano (1952) has become a staple of the flute repertoire and showcases Messiaen’s adoration of birdsong. Executed by flautist Mindy Kaufman and pianist Stephen Gosling, the piece does not quote the birds in exactitude, but instead uses pitch and articulation to create very convincing impressions. (Boulez once teased Messiaen in regard to birdsong in the bassoon register: “No bird is gigantic enough.”) Boulez’s Sonatine for flute and piano, written six years prior to The Blackbird, uses similar techniques like flutter and pizzicato tonguing; however, the Sonatine exemplifies Boulez’s resistance to repetition and the adoption of Webern-ian serialism. Flautist Robert Langevin played with rigorous precision alongside pianist Beck, and the resulting impenetrable chatter would have surely pleased Boulez. While Messiaen has solidified his importance through compositions like Le Merle noir and events such as this evening, it will be interesting to find out whether, after his recent death, Boulez’s work will remain just as relevant in the public sphere.